Authors: Lauren Groff
But she shook her head and went over to the bar, which was normally too expensive for her. The storm had kept her in the night before and she couldn't give a fig for budget; she needed to make up for lost time and her sort of businessman frequented this kind of hotel. She caught her breath and sipped her Scotch and watched the display behind the bar, blue-lit bubbles in some kind of oil, rising with preposterous slowness.
There was a pair of American men who smiled back at her, but who were joined instantly by their wives in print dresses. She winked at an old fellow who looked alarmed and tottered away; she slowly put on a coat of lipstick in the direction of a Japanese businessman who had eyes only for his computer. There was no one else, and the bartender was a woman. Helena ordered a hamburger with a luxurious heap of fried onions and gorgonzola on it, and ate it slowly in neat bites, watching the doorway where nobody came in.
The lights flickered and went out, but there were candles on the table in a soft constellation. She watched the bartender light more until the room was again twilit.
She felt full of frantic energy by the time she had finished her food, but from the deafening sound of the rain outside, it was going to be a dud night. Nobody in his right mind would go out in such weather. Reluctantly, in the light from the fire and the scattered candles, Helena tied the shopping bag over her head again and slid on her unpleasantly soaked trench coat. At the door, however, the bellhop shook his head and said, No, no, miss! and waved his arms.
I know it's storming, but my apartment is literally fifty feet away, she said, touched by his distress. She tried to show him through the glass, but the rain was so thick and the night so dark that the world melted away a foot from where they stood. She grinned at himâhe was cute, big-eared; in such a pinch he would doâbut he only turned toward the reception desk and called out something. A woman rushed over. She was tall, a German Brazilian, Helena thought, with hazel eyes and long streaked hair, and Helena felt a warm burst of hatred rise in her, for the woman was more beautiful than Helena had ever been, even in her prime.
Miss, the woman said. We cannot let you go. It is a tremendous rain. With winds. What is the word?
Not a hurricane, Helena said. There are no hurricanes in the South Atlantic. She knew this because her mother
had fretted, and Helena had found the entry on Brazil in the old set of encyclopedias to put her mind at ease.
Well, the woman said, shrugging. But even if it is only a storm, you must stay.
Helena explained again about the apartment, so few feet away, and suggested that she bring the bellhop with her, glancing under her lashes at him, wondering if he'd take the hint. But he took a step backward, and there was such terror on his pale little face that she laughed. I'll be all right, she said.
Stay, the woman said. I will give you a room for half price.
Helena felt herself flushing, but said, Which is?
The woman said a price that was the cost of the entire month of her apartment's rent. Too much, Helena said.
Quarter price, the woman said in distress. I am not authorized to go more low.
Thank you, Helena said. I'll be all right. She took off her shoes, snatched open the door, marched out, and immediately knew that she had made a mistake.
The wind carried her breath from her mouth, the rain pounded into her eyes, and Helena stepped back until she felt the hotel's stucco under her hand. She couldn't see the doorway or the rug she had just been standing on, and she was able to breathe only when she made a windbreak of the crook of her elbow. She was not one to go back,
though, not ever. Her place was a few steps away; it had taken her a minute, at most, to run here barefoot a few hours earlier. She dropped her shoes and felt her way painstakingly over the curve of the old convent to the wrought-iron fence around the courtyard. Here, it was slightly easier because she pulled herself hand over hand like a sailor up a mast, until she reached the next stucco texture, the next building.
By the time she got to this building's doorway, she was weeping. She stopped and pressed her body against the glass and tried the door, but it was either locked or the wind was holding it shut. She breathed for a while in the lee of a mailbox until she stopped crying, and wiped her swollen eyes, and started out again. Stupid woman, she said to herself. Stupid, foolish, terrible woman. You deserve what you get.
She inched forward. There were three more doors, she thought, before her own wrought-iron gate that swung inward, that the wind would whip open as soon as she tried it, and pull her inside the courtyard, home. Or maybe four doors; she couldn't quite remember, and she couldn't believe she hadn't paid much attention before now.
But before she was even to the third door, she tripped over something and went sprawling and felt the skin of her knee open painfully. She curled into a ball to gather her strength and lay there, crying with anger and exhaustion. She was alone and she conceded to her aloneness,
she would always be alone, she would always be in these puddles that grew even as she lay in them. For a very long time, she lay there, and it wasn't terrible, despite the wind and rain upon her. It was only blank.
Suddenly, something rushed out of the storm, something seized her wrist, and she felt herself being pulled bodily over the cobblestones, her limbs cracking against the hard ground. And then there was the absence of, first, the wind in her face, then the driving rain; and she opened her eyes to darkness. She was so grateful to be breathing that she didn't wonder where she was until her breath calmed and she hushed the whimper she had just heard rising from her chest and she listened to a harsh metal clang that muffled the storm even more, then a pounding that was the wind angry to be left outside. She pulled herself painfully up and drew her legs in, the cut on her leg smarting terribly, and leaned against whatever was behind her, so soft and covered in plastic. She felt with her hands and knew she was leaning on wrapped paper towels, and only then did her dulled mind grasp that she was in the grocer's. He, of all humans on the planet, had saved her. Now the smell of the place rose to her, the sour half-rot and flour. She heard him shoving something heavy against the door.
A flicker of something ugly began to stir in her, and she pushed herself farther against the paper towels, up onto
the shelf, letting the displaced rolls pad onto the floor. She was shivering, and she put the collar of her dress between her teeth to keep them from chattering. The place was dark, the only light from a distant red flickering of something electrical, which illuminated nothing.
Helena hoped for the girl or woman she'd seen on her first visit to be here. She longed for the little body to come close to hers, to hold her hand and warm her, but she listened so acutely she could hear that there was nobody in the store but them, she and this man; their breathing was the only breathing. She forced herself to listen to him, his heavy shoes shuffling closer to where she was sitting. It was maybe an accident that he kicked her calf when he drew near; she couldn't tell what he could see. She held her breath, but he knew every inch of the store, of course, and stepped even closer. She could smell him, a particular stink of feet and armpits and denim that has been worn to grease.
He said nothing, just stood over her for a long time. He gave another shuffle closer and the fabric of his jeans brushed her face and she was glad for the dress in her mouth or she would have shouted.
He said something in his gruff voice, but she didn't understand and didn't bother to respond. She tried to keep her breathing light and unobtrusive, but her stomach, so upset by her struggle and the heavy food, gave a gurgle, and he laughed unpleasantly.
The shopkeeper moved away then, and she felt the
tension fall out of her shoulders. She could hear him rummaging, then the double kiss of a refrigerator opening then closing across the room. She thought wildly of running now but knew she couldn't get the metal door up in this wind, and she was fairly sure there was no back way out of the store. And, as bad as he might be, she had been in the storm outside, and she wasn't sure, but she thought it must be worse.
The man came back. Instead of standing, he sank down opposite to where she was, and she felt a sharp and sudden pain on her throat. But then the pain translated to cold, and she knew that he was holding out a glass bottle to her, and she took it in her hand. On her cheek, then, there was another feel, a slick plastic, and the man said,
and she took the package of cookies in her other hand and ate one to be polite.
she whispered, but he said nothing back.
The drink was beer. She clung to the heft of the bottle in her hand. Though he far outpowered her, he had at least given her a weapon. She drank sparingly to make the weight of the bottle last. Across the dark gulf of the aisle, his gulps were thick and loud, and he must have brought more beer for himself because every so often she heard a clink of an empty bottle on the concrete floor and a hiss of a new beer being opened and the chime of the cap falling to the floor. The storm roared outside steadily,
and her feet on the floor began to be tickled, then lapped, by water. The storm was coming in.
Worse than being in the storm was not knowing what the storm was doing. The evidence of it was everywhere: in the cold water up to her rear on her little shelf, in the blast of wind, the rattle of the building, and the sounds of distant crashes, boats, most probably, smashing into the shore. She wondered about fires blazing through the rickety old structures of this part of town, and what would be left in the morning. If she survived this night, this hulk of a man across from her in the darkness, she could close her eyes on the taxi ride to the airport, she could get on a plane, she could soar over the wreckage until the plane landed, her mother in a wheelchair beaming at her from the bottom of the escalator in baggage claim. It would not be her mess to clean up. She was a visitor only; she could be absolved. But this was cold comfort, barely any at all. The end of the storm was unreal, and she was beyond tired. The hours of waiting in the dark here, the years of waiting in the darkness at home, were too much; they overcame her in waves of exhaustion. There was no telling how fast the water would rise. It didn't matter: the man was already here. And Helena waited for his sudden lunge, his powerful body that her own thin one couldn't resist for long.
There was a pop outside, and the man's bulk came
closer, and he said something gruff, and she cringed, but he didn't touch her.
She was lulled by the darkness, the man's immobility save for his drinking. It must be morning by now, at least. Her fear had dulled, and her thoughts were thick with sleep. She rested her head against the towels in their packages and shifted so the cramp in her rear was soothed, and shut her eyes, as if she could make the dark any darker and push the storm and the man farther from her.
The shopkeeper stood three times, there was the kiss of the refrigerator three times, he sloshed back and groaned to the floor opposite her three times. The third time, she was nearly asleep when he leaned over and put his hand on her ankle. He had been holding a beer, and his skin on hers was shockingly cold.
She had feared this for so long, it seemed, that when it was here, it was almost a relief. She felt her anger blaze alive, and she jerked her leg away, but his hand found her ankle again and clamped down to the point of pain, then beyond. She gave an involuntary cry, and he laughed, as if to say that wasn't even close to the limit of his strength, and she bit her lip until it bled, and he loosened his hand again.
She thought of her mother, at home in Miami, where there was only dry sun outside, the crucifix in the shadows above the bed; she thought of the small tin
goddess of the sea, calm above the register in the dark. She found herself praying, not knowing if she was praying to her mother or to either of the gods, or a mixture of all three, but in truth it didn't matter to whom the words were addressed because the act without direction was all she could do.
The shopkeeper removed his hand only to fetch more beer or food from the shelves. He crunched and breathed heavily and smacked his lips, and she remembered how he had tongued the gap between his teeth that day he gazed up at her on her balcony, how pink and pulsing and obscene it was. When he returned, he put his hand on her leg again, each time higher on her calf. The gate rattled with less desperation now; the wind appeared to have died down a little. When he reached her knee, he felt the raw wet mouth of the wound there, and despite herself, she pulled in a hissing breath, and this shook something from him.
He ran his finger over the edges of the wound. Every once in a while, the finger would dart forward and touch inside the cut, and she would gasp, and he would laugh. He began to talk. He was beyond drunk, this was clear, and his tongue was thick and his words were strange, and she was sure she would never have understood his Portuguese even if she spoke the language.
She felt sick with anticipated pain. She clutched
herself, waiting, and found her brain transliterating surreally, the long strands of language broken into short strands, swept into a semblance of rhythm. She took comfort in the images that rose in the darkness before her.
Bull's blood zucchini flowerstar,
she imagined he said.
Cinema collation of strange mad zebras.
She listened. His words thickened. His hand fell back away from her knee, down her calf. Outside, she heard the wind through leavesâthere were still trees, then, and the trees still had leavesâand the occasional plink of rain against metal. It could be the eye of the storm, she told herself; and if it was, she would have to bear the intensification of wind again, this man's heavy presence, and she knew what would happen if she had to wait with him once more through the terrible roar outside. She would not be able to be still enough for him to forget her. But at last, the shopkeeper fell silent and a whistling started up in his nose and she understood that he was asleep.